Why Am I Addicted to Rebelling?

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Reader’s Question

I’m 18 and for a few years now I have built up what I can only describe as an addiction to rebelling. I haven’t grown up in some hood with abusive parents or anything; I have a loving family, a nice apartment, and good friends. I just love not living up to people’s expectations of me. The only place where I have found that I don’t rebel is at work. It’s gotten to the point where I know that I’m doing it, but in all reality I just don’t care. Usually I just put it off saying that I am just a procrastinator and/or that I am bad at commitments, but I know that deep down I love defying and not living up to the expectations set upon me.

I fear that one of these days it’s going to catch up with me and I’m going to lose friends, family and any love that may be out there waiting for me. But I also don’t want to be just another brainwashed citizen who becomes just another robot, doing the same thing day in, day out. I don’t want to be stuck in that cycle.

I live with my mom, and only once met my dad face-to-face. We used to email but after we met when I was 13, he stopped talking to me. At age 15 I tried reaching out by getting a Facebook account and friending him on it but he blocked me. At 17, I went to his doorstep, just wanting to talk and finally have closure. He did not open the door; instead, he said to go home and stop showing up in his life. It was closure but not in the way I hoped it would be.

I was a model student with above average grades until the fifth grade, when I was bullied. Even the teachers and administration sided with the bullies, so my mom eventually home schooled me. I did that until the second half of freshman year, when I switched to public school. I kept having bad grades, retaking classes and not living up to expectations. I’m currently in the second semester of my senior year and I’m completely back to online school, because that’s the only way to graduate. And I’m not even doing that.

Rebelling is not even a rush anymore; it’s a love, it’s an addiction. Why do I love not caring what people think, and why do I go out of my way to do the opposite?

Psychologist’s Reply

Expectations are tricky things. Think of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. When things don’t live up to our exact expectations (like the older bears’ beds, chairs and porridge didn’t for Goldilocks), then they just aren’t right and we respond accordingly. Was Goldilocks wrong to expect the world to accommodate her size? The answer is complicated because while she was well within her rights to want things that were “just right,” she also had to acknowledge that sometimes life doesn’t work that way. In other words, expectations are just fine as long as you realize that they may not work out. In those cases, you will have to readjust your beliefs and work with what you have. As such, you may think that the expectations of others are the problem while, in reality, it is really your own expectations that are holding you back.

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We all have expectations for the people in our lives. These expectations are often both cultural and personal. For example, our cultural narrative of family values dictates that parents always want to be part of their children’s lives. Consequently, you expected that your father would want to get to know you. Unfortunately he didn’t live up to that expectation and I can only imagine how hurtful that must have been. Similarly, there is a cultural expectation that people in positions of power, like teachers and school administrators, have a responsibility to protect everyone. Unfortunately, you discovered that it isn’t always the case (and this tends to be especially true in bullying situations), so they too let you down. With so many important people in your life falling short of your expectations, I can see where it might be difficult for you to want to live up to how the culture thinks you should be.

While I can understand the “rush” that can come with subverting the expectations of others, the problem is that you are still being controlled by them. Doing the opposite of something still means that you are using those expectations as a measuring stick. Consequently, people who truly want to forge their own path decide their own fate. They give a great deal of thought to what they want in life and then purposefully go after it even if it means going along with everyone else for a while (like finishing school). Forging your own path also includes trying new things (just as Goldilocks did when she kept trying the differently sized furniture and food) and then determining your own expectations for yourself. In short, it means being proactive instead of reactive.

You may find that when you behave in a purposeful manner and figure out what you want for yourself, the “addiction” of rebelling may no longer hold such sway over you. I think that will be a good thing because, if you’ll recall, the “rebel without a cause” did not achieve happiness.

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